More Joy – Sermon for 27 Nov 2016

The Readings

Like many English families, we put our Christmas tree up fairly late, only a few days before Christmas. We bought a real tree form the Lewickes, because their son Jason and I were in Boy Scouts together. They had a Christmas tree farm right in town. The decorations would go up in a single evening. They were decorations we had collected through the years, many with their own stories and memories. Continue reading More Joy – Sermon for 27 Nov 2016

Christ the King – Sermon for 20 Nov 2016

The Readings [track 2]

In the secular world, the new year begins on January 1. In the church calendar, or at least the part of the church’s family tree that we come from, the year begins with the 1st Sunday of Advent, which is next Sunday. This makes sense to me, since it’s a preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, so the new year begins at the beginning of the story of Jesus.

That makes today the last Sunday in the church year. We call this the Sunday of Christ the King. In a way, this brings us full circle. From the final month of Mary’s pregnancy through the life of Jesus, and ending with a proclamation that Jesus Christ is the King of Creation.

Continue reading Christ the King – Sermon for 20 Nov 2016

Superheroes – Sermon for 6 Nov 2016

A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday. The Readings.

Growing up, my favorite comic books were GI Joe. I collected the action figures and the little tanks and helicopters and every month the comic book would show up in my mailbox. GI Joe was my favorite, but my friends and I read and traded and debated the merits of all the superheroes; the X-Men, Iron Man, Spiderman, the perennial debates about who was better — Superman or Batman. Continue reading Superheroes – Sermon for 6 Nov 2016

Humility – sermon for 23 October 2016

Jesus told us a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector, there in the Temple. The Pharisee is clearly not a nice guy. He thinks he’s better than everyone else. But what about this tax collector? Close your eyes and picture him. See him.

Standing all by himself, pretty far back in the Temple. Staring at the ground. Or maybe his eyes are closed so he doesn’t have to make eye contact with anyone. Fist pounds gently against his chest, gently, but over and over again. Maybe he is crying. Do you think he is crying? What do you think of our tax collector?

The Pharisee and the Publican. James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Pharisee and the Publican. James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Our tax collector is important. He has no name. He doesn’t need one. But close your eyes and picture him. See him.

Our tax collector is showing us the virtue of humility. Humility is good. Humility is necessary in this spiritual life. Humility is the soil out of which the garden of our spiritual growth grows. And every gardener knows: the key to a healthy garden is healthy soil. Tend the soil, and the garden grows.

St Benedict wrote his little Rule for the monastic life, a guide for how to run a monastery, but also a guide to discipleship. In that Rule, St Benedict wrote a 12-step guide to developing true humility. It’s very important.

We might not understand humility properly. That’s ok. We can talk about it, and what it isn’t.

Humility, in a nutshell, is just knowing exactly who you are. It’s knowing who you are, and nothing more, and nothing less. Humility is complete self-honesty about who I am, and whose I am, and where I have worth, and where I am incomplete. That’s humility. Sounds good, right? We want that. We want to be honest with ourselves about who we are.

Except it’s so hard to get the balance right. Some of us think we are better than we are. Some of us think that we are worse than we are. It’s very hard to get right. It’s really hard to be completely honest with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, our flaws and sins, our gifts and talents.

And the world around us makes it much harder. The world around us tells us lies about ourselves. It’s exhausting.

Most of the time, we measure ourselves by the ruler that the world gives. Are we good enough?Smart enough? Pretty enough? Thin enough? Strong enough? Sexy enough? Hard-working enough?

The world hands us this ruler, and we never measure up. We’re always falling short.

Sometimes it’s people around us wanting to climb over us and feel better about themselves.

Sometimes it’s a way to make money. Modern consumer culture is based all on this. All those ads, all those commercials, all those magazine covers and magazine articles, all of it trying to sell you a fix for problems that you don’t have.

Sometimes it’s the work of demons, trying to sabotage the beauty of God’s grace.

Constantly, the world holds up a ruler next to us and we never measure up.

~~~

So we must tell the world that we will measure ourselves by a different ruler.

We are as smart and as skillful as God has made us. We are beautiful because God created us. The world will try to tell us that we are not good enough, but we are Christians, and we are called to live in the world, but not of the world.

So, with regard to the world, we defiantly reject its attempts to define us, and respond only that we are Christians, created by God and redeemed by Christ and living temples of the Holy Spirit, and the world cannot give or take anything greater.

~~~

But then humility, and our tax collector. He doesn’t care what the world thinks. He measures himself by the other ruler, the ruler that God gives. This is the ruler that measures his full potential as a human being. And he is honest with himself, because he practices the virtue of humility. Humility is the soil out of which the garden of our spiritual growth grows. And every gardener knows: the key to a healthy garden is healthy soil. Tend the soil, and the garden grows. Our tax collector tends the garden of his heart, and humility teaches him.

Here’s what it teaches him.

He is not what he could be.

He is not what God meant him to be.

He is certainly not God, and he cannot live without God.

He is, as the Psalm says, created just a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor.

He has, as the Apostle says, sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

There is no humiliation in this. Humility is not humiliation. Humiliation is a terrible thing. We’re torn down by outside forces, embarrassed, stripped of our dignity, stripped of our authority, stripped of our beautiful personhood. Humiliation is a terrible thing. But humility is just living in the truth of human existence, and the truth of human existence is that we are not what we could be. We are not what God meant us to be. We are not what the world or other people tell us we are. We are certainly not God, and we cannot live without God. We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Now, the awareness of this leads to deep and lasting joy. That might seem like a paradox. Why would I feel better by realizing that I’m a sinner? The tax collector here doesn’t seem like he’s having very much fun.

But the start of a really good relationship with God is honesty. Honesty’s at the heart of every good relationship when you think about it. Your relationship with God is no different. So be honest, without beating yourself up. Go to God as the tax collector has, in all honesty, and let yourself be truly vulnerable. God, you are God and I am not. I am a sinner. I need your help. Have mercy on me. Begin here, and soon you will realize that despite everything, God loves you, and cares for you, and desires you, and longs for you to draw near to him.

The tax collector’s practice of humility lies at the heart of an entire prayer practice called the Jesus Prayer. It’s the prayerful, constant repetition of the prayer of the tax-collector: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It is a powerful prayer. It has aided millions on their journeys towards Christ.

Humility is not meant to make you feel miserable, but it might not feel good at first if you decide to try it seriously. We live in layers of self-delusion that make us feel better about ourselves, protective armor in a world that constantly tells us that we are worthless.

But humility is the soil out of which the garden of our spiritual growth grows. When we tend the soil, the garden grows.

Humility, true honesty, true vulnerability before Christ — it leads to healing. We find healing when we take our illness seriously. We find mercy when we actually ask for it. We receive the love of Christ when we open our own hearts and let it in.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Bridgebuilders – Sermon for 25 September 2016

The Rich Man and Lazarus

You know, in all of his parables across all four gospels, we have lots of famous characters. There’s the Prodigal Son, the Persistant Widow and the Unjust Judge, the Good Samaritan. There’s only one person in all of those parables that Jesus names. Lazarus is his name. In Hebrew, it’s Eleazar, which means “God has helped”. So Lazarus is given his name, but the Rich Man is nameless.

And that’s not the only difference between the two men.

The Rich Man and Lazarus couldn’t be more different.

One is rich beyond imagining. The other is as poor as can be.
One is dressed in linen – expensive stuff from Egypt – and purple robes. The other is dressed in rags.
One man feasts in luxury every day, with all the food that he can eat. The other longed to eat the crumbs from his table, but did not have even that.

And in the afterlife, the rich man and Lazarus couldn’t be more different.

One man is in paradise, rocking his soul in the bosom of Abraham. The other lies far away, in Hades
One man is comforted. The other is in torment.
And between them a great chasm has been fixed, and no-one may cross it.

It is a chasm of the rich man’s own creation.

In this case, Jesus makes it clear that it’s the rich man’s love of wealth and fine things that is the root of his evil. Paul’s letter to Timothy spells out the same danger: “both those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.” The word senseless really sticks out to me in that description. Our rich man has become truly senseless. He can no longer see Lazarus at his gate, or hear his cries for mercy. His love of comfort made him blind to the needs of his neighbor, and deaf to the message of Moses and the Prophets.

It was not until the afterlife that he could see the chasm that was fixed between him and Lazarus.

The chasm was fixed in the afterlife, but it was created years before. The rich man created it with his neglect and his hardness of heart.

Hell's Canyon, Oregon
Hell’s Canyon, Oregon

The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Isn’t it interesting that the rich man knows Lazarus’ name? Doesn’t that make it seem worse, somehow? That he knows the name of the man that he ignored all his life? He asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers as a warning, but Abraham refuses the request. It will do no good. If the brothers refuse to heed even Moses and the prophets, then not even a man risen from the dead will convince them to build bridges across the chasms of their creation.

All around the world, people are busy creating those chasms. As in this parable, sometimes its love of wealth that drives us to create them. Sometimes it’s the old evils of racism and sexism and homophobia playing out in us that drive us to create chasms. Of course, we choose to create them for much more personal reasons. We push people away with such force that we can almost feel a chasm opening up. I’ve done that before. Someone I really don’t like, who has really offended me or said something that I can’t stand, or someone who has hurt someone I love. I can fix a pretty wide chasm between us, and I’m fine with it. Those sorts of chasms are few and far between, though. Most of the time, we don’t even see it happening.

We studied this text one day. A woman in our group admitted that she felt quite pleased that Abraham denied the rich man’s request to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. “Good,” she said, “The rich man doesn’t deserve it.” We all nodded in righteous agreement. Isn’t this the point of the parable, after all? Isn’t this what Jesus is trying to say?

The professor was quiet for a moment, and then said “I wonder if your focus on what the rich man deserves is getting in the way of your focus on his torment.” Our sense of justice served was blinding us to his suffering in the same way that his self-centeredness had blinded him to the suffering of Lazarus.

It’s easy to walk past those we don’t want to see. They might make us feel a little uncomfortable, so we avoid them, ignore them, tune them out, step over them, even when they’re lying on our doorsteps. We are trapped by senseless and harmful desires.

And it’s just as easy to do all these things with God.

But we are here – we are Christians – because we have heard the message of Moses and the Prophets, and the same message proclaimed by a man risen from the dead. Not Lazarus, but Jesus Christ. It is for us now to announce that same message. Love God. Love your neighbor. The chasms of your own creation can be bridged.

As Christians, we are heralds of Christ whose compassion builds bridges across the chasms between neighbors. We are heralds of Christ whose Cross is a bridge across the chasm that separates us from God.

As Christians, Christ offers his ministry of reconciliation through us to all whom we meet. Some will remind us of Lazarus, and some will remind us of the rich man and his brothers. What will we offer to them?

The rich man pleaded for water to cool his parched tongue. We have the water of the font to cool parched souls.

Lazarus pleaded for the crumbs from the rich man’s table. We have the bread of life and the cup of salvation to share from the table of the Lord.

We have been given these tools by Christ to build bridges across chasms of suffering and isolation and neglect. We use these tools too: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. We fight the good fight. We are bridge builders. This is our mission, though it is a hard one. There are many who have not listened to Moses and the Prophets, and have not listened to Jesus who rose from the dead. It is up to us, now, to convince them.

From the Archives: The Weirdest Story in the New Testament

This sermon was from 22 Sept 2013. The sermon centers on The Parable of the Unjust Steward. I have posted here because we just heard this parable last Sunday, and I didn’t preach on it. Read all the readings from last Sunday The Readings [track 2]. 

It’s an odd parable, don’t you think? The footnote in one of my annotated Bibles says “The parable resists easy interpretation.” No kidding. William Brosend, an Episcopal priest of the diocese of Kentucky and professor of homiletics at the Episcopal Seminary at Sewannee in Tennessee, puts it a bit more bluntly: “This is the weirdest story in the New Testament.” [in Conversations with Scripture: The Parables, p. 80] Continue reading From the Archives: The Weirdest Story in the New Testament

PTBQ: The point of prayer – sermon for 18 Sept 2016

This was another Sunday in this year’s round of Preaching the Big Questions sermons. As I talked about in this post, PTBQ is an opportunity for me to give my best shot to answer deep questions of faith and theology. Unlike the other PTBQ posts, this one is pretty much a complete manuscript.

Today’s big question is about prayer. Why should we pray? What outcome should we expect when we pray? What is prayer for?

This is a vast and wide-ranging topic, this topic of prayer. Prayer lies at the very center of our lives as Christians, and actually I think prayer is a built-in function of the human person. We all pray, but some of us pray to the correct God.

But we have so many questions about prayer. One reason is that there are so many kinds of things that we can lump under the umbrella of prayer. We’ll return to this in a little bit.

One other reason is that we sometimes pray to God for a specific thing, and then that thing doesn’t happen, or at least not in the way we expect it to. Then we get stuck in a whole other set of questions: Why didn’t God answer my prayer? Does asking God for things feel a little selfish? Are we turning God into a divine and holy version of Santa? Or a genie in a lamp? Or a sacred slot machine, and we just pull the arm on the side with every request and hope to hit the jackpot? Does prayer really work at all?

You see? There are all sorts of big questions surrounding prayer, and we can’t hope to address everything here. But I’m glad these things are coming up, because it’s part of the vision for this parish that is beginning to take shape in my heart: that Trinity will be a school for prayer in all its many forms, on behalf of Oshkosh and all her citizens, and all of the members of this church will be practitioners of mature, complex, and deep prayer practices.

OK, there are two big themes throughout scripture that seem to come into conflict when we talk about prayer. The first is that we are to be people of prayer. To be a Jew, and then to be a Christian, is to be a person who practices prayer. It’s all over the Bible. The psalms, for instance, every one of them a kind of prayer. Worship, adoration, glorious liturgical praise, thanksgiving, lamentation, cries for vengeance and deliverance… they all have examples in the Bible. Countless times in the New Testament, we’re given advice on prayer. We heard a bit of it in today’s epistle reading: “First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.“ In no place is it more direct as when the disciples turn to Jesus and say “Lord, teach us how to pray,” and Jesus tells them the Lord’s Prayer. To be a disciple is to pray.

But the other side of the coin is this: in Scripture, in our tradition, we learn about the characteristics of God. God is perfect, and perfectly good, and boundless in love. God is the sovereign ruler of all creation. God’s eye is on the sparrow, we are told, watching over every detail. God has a plan, infinite in wisdom. in the words of one of our prayers, God is a god of unchangeable power and eternal light, carrying out in tranquility the plan of salvation; by the effectual working of divine providence. And God knows each of us better than we know ourselves, and so nothing is hidden from God.

 

Photo by Janice Person. Click to visit her site.
Photo by Janice Person. Click to visit her site.

Do we think we are bargaining with God? Growing up in Massachusetts, there was an upcoming basketball game between the Boston College, which is a Jesuit school, and Wake Forest. Someone said “we’re about to find out if God listens to Catholic prayers or Baptist prayers.”

Surely it doesn’t work that way. But then we’re called to pray. So what is the point of it, if God’s plan is better than my plan, and if God’s going to do what God’s going to do?

OK, my answer, which is actually the answer from Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher. He’s not the first person to come up with this answer, but he’s the one who says it in one sentence. I thought shorter would be better. Kierkegaard says this “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”

I pray because I do not yet see the world as God sees it. I don’t yet love the world as God loves it. I pray because I know it to be a solemn duty of my baptismal ministry. I pray because I want to be closer to God than I am. I pray because I can’t not pray.

So I said before that there are many different kinds of prayer, and we have questions about all of them. But if I had to define prayer, I’d say that it is the active work that humans do to strengthen our relationship with God.

Now, the parallel to prayer is to look at all the many ways we humans work on our relationships with other people. These things aren’t prayer, but for every type of human interaction, for every way I strengthen my relationships with other people, there is a parallel in the world of prayer.

For example: If I’m talking to a judge, or a governor, or the President, or a Queen, I would use the most formal and respectful language. I would be careful about protocol and etiquette. I would stand up when they come into the room and I would choose my words carefully. And actually I would do that with most older people that I don’t know yet. There’s a time and a place for formality, dignity, respect, and ceremony. Of course, that is often how we address the ruler and creator and judge of the universe in our prayers, for God is God and we are not. It is good to remember that, from time to time.

Do you see what I mean? There’s a parallel between our human relationships and the way we pray to God.

But of course I’m not formal with everyone. With my closer friends I’m casual, comfortable, laid-back. I’m vulnerable, willing to let my guard down a bit. The years of trust and shared experience means that we can just be together, sharing the highs and lows and dreams and fears of our lives. Sometimes prayer with God is like that, as well, for in Jesus we have a friend and brother. And though God knows what’s going on with us, probably far better than we know it ourselves, the practice of vulnerability and trust changes us, makes us more open, makes us more self-aware, and helps with perspective and reflection.

And then of course, with the closest friends, with our families, with our spouses, it is often simply enough to sit in silence and be together, looking out at the world or into each other’s eyes, being in that beautiful place where words aren’t necessary right then, just to be in the presence of someone you love and who loves you back. And then you read the great spiritual writers on contemplative prayer, and you realize that’s what they’re talking about with God.

I trust that God has it all in hand, and I’m grateful not to have all that responsibility. God doesn’t need my prayers. But God longs for me to long for God, and so I need prayer. I need to avoid the risk of forgetting God, because this is a world filled with distractions, and it might be very easy indeed to let the days and weeks slip by and wake up one morning to realize how long it has been since you gave God the first thought.

Above all, I need God in my life, and there is really only one way for me to work on that relationship, and it is prayer, in all its many beautiful and wonderful forms.

PTBQ: Are my sins forgiven? – sermon for 11 Sept 2016

This was another Sunday in this year’s round of Preaching the Big Questions sermons. As I talked about in this post, PTBQ is an opportunity for me to give my best shot to answer deep questions of faith and theology. Unlike the other PTBQ posts, this one is pretty much a complete manuscript.

This is a fantastic set of readings for today’s big question.

Today: How do I know my sins are forgiven?

Last week I had some sort of sickness for about 36 hours. At 5 o’clock on Tuesday I felt fine. By 5:30 I had a pounding headache, chills through my muscles and a 100 degree temp. I could certainly feel the symptoms. You can’t always feel the symptoms though. Continue reading PTBQ: Are my sins forgiven? – sermon for 11 Sept 2016

PTBQ: 5 Marks of A Healthy Parish – Sermon for 4 Sept 2016

This was another Sunday in this year’s round of Preaching the Big Questions sermons. As I talked about in this post, PTBQ is an opportunity for me to give my best shot to answer deep questions of faith and theology. What I’ve printed here is not quite what I preached. This was a combination of notes, departure points, and manuscript.

What are the characteristics of a healthy parish?

I listed 5 characteristics of a healthy parish, and 1 great theme that drapes gracefully across all five. In my thoughts, a healthy parish is one that is aware and working towards becoming – Continue reading PTBQ: 5 Marks of A Healthy Parish – Sermon for 4 Sept 2016

Augustine

St. Augustine of Hippo, by Philippe de Champaigne. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Click to go the wikimedia page.
St. Augustine of Hippo, by Philippe de Champaigne. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Click to go the wikimedia page.
August 28 is the commemoration of St. Augustine of Hippo in the church calendar. Augustine is one of my heroes. He’s maligned by many progressive Christians because of his association with the doctrine of Original Sin, although Augustine didn’t come up with the idea, and although it is a fairly central teaching throughout the Western Christian church (including classical Anglicanism [see article ix]), and although what he said about it has been confused with what later, harsher, more hopeless theologians have said about it.

Even if you disagree with him on the sources of human sinfulness and woundedness, Augustine still shines in so many areas of thought and contemplation. His Confessions are essentially the first autobiography, and so astounding is his ability to explore the landscape of his interior life that modern psychology would still be catching up 1500 years later. His works of theology, philosophy, pastoral guidance, and commentaries on Scripture are all still read. His sermons still sparkle with insight and depth.

At the heart of Augustine is a deep longing for connection. We are made to love. We are incomplete unless we are able to love, and this love is ultimately a love that is only truly fulfilled in God. Augustine is worth getting to know, even if you think you hate him. He’s like St. Paul in that way.

Anyway, imagine my delight when Adam Bond slapped my face onto Phillipe de Champaigne’s famous painting of St. Augustine. I am not worthy to be conflated with him, sinner that I am. And yet, well, this makes me laugh.

by Phillippe de Champaigne, remixed by Adam Bond
by Phillippe de Champaigne, remixed by Adam Bond